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Reading the calls and flight of birds was a practice of Roman Augurs

AUSPICIUM (sg) (pl: auspicia)



An auspicium ("auspice", Lat.: "looking at birds") is a type of divination. Not a prediction of future events, the auspicia simply provided a sign from the gods indicating approval or disapproval of a proposed action. Auspicia were governed by the Ius auspicii.[1]

In the most ancient times, no public or private action took place without consulting the auspices.

"Auspiciis hanc urbem conditam esse, auspiciis bello ac pace, domo militiaeque omnia geri, quis est, qui ignoret?" Livy ab urbe condita[2]

Nature and Function of Auspicium

While all nations of antiquity sought to learn the will of the gods by various means, each separate nation held a sort of national belief that their particular gods revealed the future to them in a distinct and peculiar manner. Therefore, each people possessed a national μαντική or divinatio, which was supported by the laws and institutions of the state, and which was guarded from mixture with foreign elements by stringent enactments.[3]

The Romans looked upon astrology and the whole prophetic art of the Chaldaeans as a dangerous innovation. They paid little attention to dreams, and hardly any to inspired prophets and seers. They had, however, learned from the Etruscans to attach much importance to extraordinary appearances in nature — Prodigia. In common with other neighbouring nations they endeavoured to learn the future, especially in war, by consulting the entrails of victims. They laid great stress upon favourable or unfavourable omina. In times of danger and difficulty they were accustomed to consult the Sibylline Books, which they had received from the Greeks. However, the mode of divination, which was peculiar to them, and essentially national, consisted in those signs included under the name of auspicia.[4]


The observation of the auspices was, according to the unanimous testimony of the ancient writers, more ancient even than Rome itself, which is constantly represented as founded under the sanction of the auspices, and the use of them is therefore associated with the Latins, or the earliest inhabitants of the city. There seems therefore no reason to assign to them an Etruscan origin, as many modern writers are inclined to do, while there are several facts pointing to an opposite conclusion. Cicero, who was himself an augur, in his work De Divinatione, constantly appeals to the striking difference between the auspicia and the Etruscan system of divination; and, while he frequently mentions other nations which paid attention to the flight of birds as intimations of the divine will, he never once mentions this practice as in existence among the Etruscans.[5] The belief that the flight of birds gave some intimation of the will of the gods seems to have been prevalent among many nations of antiquity, and was common to the Greeks, as well as the Romans; but it was only among the latter people that it was reduced to a complete system, governed by fixed rules, and handed down from generation to generation. In Greece, the oracles supplanted the birds, and the future was learnt from Apollo and other gods, rarely from Zeus, who possessed very few oracles in Greece. The contrary was the case at Rome: it was from Jupiter that the future was learnt, and the birds were regarded as his messengers.[6]

Types of Augury Signs

Lightning that came from the left was a favourable omen to Roman Augurs

The words augurium and auspicium came to be used in course of time to signify the observation of various kinds of signs. They were divided into five sorts:[7]

  • ex caelo
  • ex avibus
  • ex tripudiis
  • ex quadrupedibus, and
  • ex diris

Of these, the last three formed no part of the ancient auspices. The observation of signs in the heavens, such as lightning, was naturally connected with observing the heavens in order to watch the birds; and therefore, must in early times have formed part of the auspices; for in an early stage of society, lightning and similar phenomena have been always looked upon as sent by the gods. A few words must be said on each of these five kinds of augury.

  • Ex caelo. This included the observation of the various kinds of thunder and lightning, and was regarded as the most important, maximum auspicium.[8]

The interpretation of these phenomena was rather Etruscan than Roman; and the only point connected with them which deserves mention here, is, that whenever it was reported by a person authorised to take the auspices, that Jupiter thundered or lightened, the comitia could not be held.[9]

  • Ex avibus. It was only a few birds which could give auguries among the Romans.[10]

They were divided into two classes:

Oscines, those which gave auguries by singing, or their voice, and Alites, those which gave auguries by their flight.[11]

likewise the owl[12] , and the hen.[13] To the aves alites belonged first of all the eagle (aquila), who is called pre-eminently the bird of Jupiter (Jovis ales), and next the vulture (vultur), and with these two the avis sanqualis, also called ossifraga, and the immussulus or immusculus are probably also to be classed.[14] Some birds were included both among the oscines and the alites: such were the Picus Martius, and Feronius, and the Parrha.[15] These were the principal birds consulted in the auspices. Every sound and motion of each bird had a different meaning, according to the different circumstances, or times of the year when it was observed, but the particulars do not deserve further notice here. When the birds favoured an undertaking, they were said addicere, admittere or secundare, and were then called addictivae, admissivae, secundae, or praepetes: when unfavourable they were said abdicere, arcere, refragari, &c., and were then called adversae or alterae. The birds which gave unfavourable omens were termed funebres, inhibitae, lugubres, malae, &c., and such auspices were called clivia and clamatoria.

  • Ex Tripudiis. These auspices were taken from the feeding of chickens, and were especially employed on military expeditions. It was the doctrine of the augurs that any bird could give a tripudium[16]

, but it became the practice in later times to employ only chickens (pulli) for this purpose. They were kept in a cage, under care of a person called the pullarius; and when the auspices were to be taken, the pullarius opened the cage and threw to the chickens pulse or a kind of soft cake. If they refused to come out or to eat, or uttered a cry (occinerent), or beat their wings, or flew away, the signs were considered unfavourable.[17] On the contrary, if they ate greedily, so that something fell from their mouth and struck the earth, it was called tripudium solistimum, (tripudium quasi terripavium, solistimum, from solum, according to the ancient writers, [18] , and was held a favourable sign. Two other kinds of tripudia are mentioned by Festus, the tripudium oscinum, from the cry of birds, and sonivium, from the sound of the pulse falling to the ground: in what respects the latter differed from the tripudium solistimum, we are not informed.[19] The juge auspicium belonged to this class of auguries.[20]

  • Ex diris, sc. signis. Under this head was included every kind of augury, which does not fall under any of the four classes mentioned above, such as sneezing, stumbling, and other accidental things.[21]

There was an important augury of this kind connected with the army, which was called ex acuminibus, that is, the flames appearing at the points of spears or other weapons.[22] .

Manner of taking the auspices

The ordinary manner of taking the auspices, properly so called (i.e. ex caelo and ex avibus), was as follows:[23]

  • The person who was to take them first marked out with a wand (lituus) a division in the heavens called templum or tescum, within which he intended to make his observations.
  • The station where he was to take the auspices was also separated by a solemn formula from the rest of the land, and was likewise called templum or tescum.
  • He then proceeded to pitch a tent in it (tabernaculum capere), and this tent again was also called templum, or, more accurately, templum minus (Templum).

Within the walls of Rome, or, more properly speaking, within the pomoerium, there was no occasion to select a spot and pitch a tent on it, as there was a place on the Arx on the summit of the Capitoline hill, called Auguraculum, which had been consecrated once for all for this purpose.[24] , which answered the same purpose; but on all other occasions a place had to be consecrated, and a tent to be pitched, as, for instance, in the Campus Martius, when the comitia centuriata were to be held. The person who was then taking the auspices waited for the favourable signs to appear; but it was necessary during this time that there should be no interruption of any kind whatsoever (silentium), and hence the word silentium was used in a more extended sense to signify the absence of everything that was faulty. Everything, on the contrary, that rendered the auspices invalid was called vitium[25]

Auspicia Impetrativa

Before performing any public act (e.g., calling a comitia, starting a battle) a magistrate consulted the gods by "taking the auspices". This consisted of observation of birds (aves). The magistrates themselves performed these "auspicia impetrativa", and it was up to them to determine how to interpret what they saw. Augurs served two roles; they could be consulted by magistrates regarding any questions related to the auspices, and the augurs were responsible for creating and inaugurating the auguracula, the spaces in and from which the auspices were taken. Three permanent auguracula existed within Rome itself; on the citadel[26] , on the Palatine and on the Quirinal[27] . Auguracula were also established in other cities and in military camps. Auspicia impetrativa were narrow in scope, only indicating simple approval or disapproval by the gods of a specific course of action that a magistrate proposed to undertake. These auspices were also limited in space and time since they were valid for one day only and only until the magistrate crossed certain boundaries, such as that between the Campus Martius and the city proper, the amnis Petronia[28] . Once such a boundary was crossed, the auspices had to be taken again.

Auspicia Oblativa

Whereas auspicia impetrativa were initiated by magistrates, auspicia oblativa were manifested by the gods themselves. Any seemingly significant or unusual human or natural event could be seen as an auspicium oblativum. The most extreme of these could be considered as prodigies. Auspicia oblativa might be observed by a magistrate directly, or they might be brought to the notice of a magistrate. Except for often in the case of prodigies, the magistrate could decide to accept or reject the auspicium oblativum.

The power to take the auspices

Having explained what the auspices were and how they were taken, we have now to determine who had the power of taking them.[29] In the first place it is certain that in ancient times no one but a patrician could take the auspices, and that a plebeian had no power of doing so. The gods of the Roman state were the gods of the patricians alone, and it was consequently regarded as an act of profanation for any plebeian to attempt to interpret the will of these gods. Hence the possession of the auspices (habere auspicia) is one of the most distinguished prerogatives of the patricians: they are said to be penes patrum, and are called auspicia patrum.[30] It would further appear that every patrician might take the auspices; but here a distinction is to be observed. It has already been remarked that in the most ancient times no transaction, whether private or public, was performed without consulting the auspices[31] and hence after private auspices had become entirely disused, the Romans, in accordance with their usual love of preserving ancient forms, were accustomed in later times to employ auspices in marriages, who, however, acted only as friends of the bridegroom, to witness the payment of the dowry and to superintend the various rites of the marriage.[32] The employment of the auspices at marriages was one great argument used by the patricians against connubium between themselves and the plebeians, as it would occasion, they urged, perturbationem auspiciorum publicorum privatorumque.[33] The possession of these private auspicia is expressed in another passage of Livy by privatim auspicia habere.[34] In taking these private auspices, it would appear that any patrician was employed, who knew how to form templa and was acquainted with the art of augury, and was therefore called auspex or augur: it does not appear to have been necessary nor usual in such cases to have recourse to the public augurs, the members of the collegium, who are therefore frequently called augures publici, to distinguish them from the private augurs[35] The case, however, was very different with respect to the auspicia publica, generally called auspicia simply, or those which concerned the state. The latter could only be taken by the persons who represented the state, and who acted as mediators between the gods and the state; for though all the patricians were eligible for taking the auspices, yet it was only the magistrates who were in actual possession of them. As long as there were any patrician magistrates, the auspices were exclusively in their hands; on their entrance upon office, they received the auspices[36] and at the expiration of their office, they laid them down.[37] In case, however, there was no patrician magistrate, the auspices became vested in the whole body of the patricians, which was expressed by the words auspicia ad patres redeunt.[38] This happened in the kingly period on the demise of a king, and the patricians then chose an interrex, who was therefore invested by them with the right of taking the auspices, and was thus enabled to mediate between the gods and the state in the election of a new king. In like manner in the republican period, when it was believed that there had been something faulty (vitium) in the auspices in the election of the consuls, and they were obliged in consequence to resign their office, the auspices returned to the whole body of the patricians, who had recourse to an interregnum for the renewal of the auspices, and for handing them over in a perfect state to the new magistrates: hence we find the expressions repetere de integro auspicia and renovare per interregnum auspicia.[39]

It will be seen from what has been said that the Roman state was a species of theocracy, that the gods were its rulers, and that it was by means of the auspices that they intimated their will to the representatives of the people, that is, the magistrates. It follows from this, as has already been remarked, that no public act could be performed without consulting the auspices, no election could be held, no law passed, no war waged; for a neglect of the auspices would have been equivalent to a declaration that the gods had ceased to rule the Roman state.[40]

There still remain three points in connection with the auspices which require notice:
  • The relation of the magistrates to the augurs in taking the auspices.
  • The manner in which the magistrates received the auspices.
  • The relation of the different magistrates to one another with respect to the auspices.

We can only make a few brief remarks upon each of these important matters, and must refer out readers for fuller information to the masterly discussion of Rubino (Röm. Verfassung, p48, &c.), to whom we are indebted for a great part of the present article.[41]

Disregarding Auspicia

There are many examples in Valerius Maximus that show how disaster follows those who disregard the auspices:[42]

Valerius Maximus 2.1.1: "Among our ancestors, no affair was undertaken, either in public or private, before taking the auspices."
Valerius Maximus 1.4.2 on Ti. Gracchus "No he died as a result of disregarding the portents."
Valerius Maximus 1.4.3 During the First Punic War (249 BCE), P. Claudius, a man of impulse, wanting to join battle at sea, sought auspices in the traditional fashion. When the pullarius reported that the chickens did not leave their coop, he ordered them flung into the sea, saying, "Since they will not eat, let them drink." Soon afterwards he lost his fleet off the Aegates islands with great damage to the republic and his own destruction.[43]

Valerius Maximus 1.4.4 "L. Junius, colleague of P. Claudius, having neglected auspices and lost his fleet in a storm, forestalled the ignominy of a conviction by voluntary death."[44]

Valerius Maximus 1.4.7 "M. Brutus, colleague of Cassius, was forewarned of the outcome of the civil war against Caesar and Antonius (42 BCE). For two eagles flying above the field on which he fought arose from the two camps, came together, and clashed with each other. The winner went off to Caesar Augustus, whereas the one which had flown up from Brutus' camp was put to flight."[45]

Valerius Maximus 1.6.7 "To Flaminius' headlong audacity succeeds C. Hostilius Mancinus with his insane obstinacy (137 BCE). These prodigies came his way as he was about to leave for Spain as consul, when he was minded to offer sacrifice at Lavinium, the chickens on being let out from their coup fled into a nearby wood and could not be found though most diligently sought. When he was going aboard ship from the habor of Hercules, where he had arrived on foot, a voice from nowhere came to his ears, "Mancinus, remain!" Frightened by this, he changed route and made for Genua, where he boarded a boat: a snake of extraordinary size appeared and then disappeared. So he equaled the number of portents with the number of his disasters, a lost battle, a disgraceful treaty, a lamentable handover."
Valerius Maximus 1.6.8 "Such temerity in a man of little judgement is rendered less strange by the sad end of a most respected citizen, Ti. Gracchus, which a prodigy warned but prudence did not avoid. For when as (pro) consul (212 BCE) he made a sacrifice in Lucania, two snakes suddenly appeared from hiding, at the liver of the victim he had immolated, and withdrew into the same lair. He then went on that account to repeat the sacrifice, and the same prodigy occurred. A third victim was slaughtered and its entrails more carefully guarded, but the approach of the serpents could not be blocked nor their withdrawal prevent. Although the haruspices said that the life of the general was concerned, Gracchus allowed himself to be brought by the treachery of a false friend, Flavus, to a place where the Carthaginian commander Mago lay in ambush with an armed band, and was there killed unarmed."[46]

Valerius Maximus 1.6.9 As [M. Marcellus] enquired the will of the Gods in a ceremonial sacrifice. The liver of the first victim to fall before the hearth was found to he headless and the second had a double-headed liver. After inspection the haruspex pronounced with a gloomy countences that the entrails disliked him, because the first showed mutilated and the second excessive. Thus admonished to avoid rash enterprise, on the following night M. Marcellus ventured out with a few companions to reconnoiter (208 BCE(. Surrounded by a large number of enemies, in the country of the Brutti, he perished bringing his country grief and loss in equal measure.[47]

Valerius Maximus 5.6.3: "When praetor Genucius Cipus was leaving by the City gate wearing his general's cloak, a portent of a strange and unheard-of description befell him. For suddenly the semblance of horns crept out on his head; and an oracle was given that if he returned to the City he would be king. Lest that should happen, he sentenced himself to voluntary and perpetual exile. Piety worthy to be preferred to the seven kings in terms of real glory, testifying to which, a bronze effigy of a horned head was put into the gate by which he had left, and it was called Raduscula; for pieces of bronze once used to be called raudera."[48]

Valerius Maximus 5.6.4 "As (praetor Aelius) was sitting in judgment, a woodpecker settled on his head. The haruspex affirmed that if the bird was allowed to live, the fate of his own house would be very happy but that of the republic very miserable; if it was killed, both predictions would be reversed. Aelius immediately killed the woodpecker with a bite before the senate's eyes. The Aelius family lost seventeen exceptionally brave men in the battle Cannae; the republic as time went on rose to the topmost pinnacle of empire."[49]

Valerius Maximus 7.5.5 "Consul Papirius Cursor was besieging Aquilonia (293 BCE). He wished to join battle and the pullarius reported excellent auspices, though the birds were in fact far from encouraging. Informed of his deception, Papirius believed that for himself and his army a good omen had been given and began the fray. But he placed the liar right in front of the battle line so that the Gods might have someone on whose head to visit their anger, if angery They were. Whether by chance or the providence of divine power, the first missle discharged from the opposing side was guided right into the breast of the pullarius and laid him lifeless on the ground. When the consul learned of it, he confidently invaded Aquilonia and took it. So quickly did he perceive how the insult to him as general ought to be avenged, how violated religion should be expiated, and how victory could be seized. He acted the man of severity, the religious consul, the vigorous commander by catching in a single mental impulse the measure of fear, the method of punishment and the path to hope."[50]


  1. William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Marshall, London, 1975, pp. 174-179.
  2. Livy, vi.14
  3. William Smith, pp. 174-179.
  4. William Smith, pp. 174-179.
  5. Cic. de Div. i.41, ii.35, 38; de Nat. Deor. ii.4
  6. Aves internuntiae Jovis, Cic. de Divin. ii.34; Interpretes Jovis optimi maximi publici augures, Cic. de Leg. ii.8
  7. William Smith, pp. 174-179.
  8. Serv. ad Virg. Aen. II.693; Cic. de Div. II.18, &c.; Festus, s.v. Coelestia
  9. Cic. de Div. II.14, Philipp. V.3
  10. Cic. de Div. II.34
  11. Festus, s.v. Oscines[51]

Additional References

  • Becker, Röm. Alterth. vol. II part I. p304
  • Creuzer, Symbolik, vo. II p935, &c.
  • Hartung, Die Religion der Römer, vol. 1 p98, &c.
  • Göttling, Geschichte der Röm. Staatsverf. p198, &c.
  • Incorporating material adapted from William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
  • Linderski, J. 1982. "Auspicia et Auguria Romana... Summo Labore Collecta": A Note on Minucius Felix Octavius 26.1. Classical Philology, Vol. 77, No. 2 (Apr., 1982), pp. 148-150. The University of Chicago Press (Retrieve from JSTOR)
  • Mascov, De Jure Auspicii apud Romanos, Lips. 1721
  • Müller, Etrusker, vol. II p110, &c.
  • Rubino, Röm. Verfassung, p34, &c.
  • Smith, William, D.C.L., LL.D.: A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875, pp. 174‑179.
  • Valerius Maximus (1st C. C.E.) Factorvm et Dictorum Memorabilium Libri Novem Latin
  • Werther, De Auguriis Romanis, Lemgo, 1835

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